Sunday, May 9, 2010

Topaz Adjust 4 – A Taste of HDR on a Budget

I’ve been using Topaz Adjust almost since it came out. I bought Adjust and DeNoise for a fairly low price during an introductory offer a few years ago. They have been offering free upgrades ever since, and the tools have definitely gotten more refined. Adjust has a far superior interface in version 4 than it did in earlier versions, although this current interface is similar to that introduced in version 3. This interface has a fairly quick preview mode and a few extra default looks over version 3.

Why do I say default looks? Well, Topaz Adjust is driven by a bunch of sliders that control all aspects of exposure and detail. These two interact a great deal, providing a near infinite variety of looks along the way. Topaz Adjust offers a whole array of default settings that you can use as they are, or use as a starting point for further tweaking.

I had used Topaz Adjust 3 to tweak up an image of the parliament buildings in London that I shot from the eye, just as it was descending back to earth. The image is rather flat, as it was a very dull day.


I definitely like the composition, though, as it shows the bubble next to us and some people doing exactly what I am doing, shooting the pairliament and Big Ben from above. But the dull colors and low contrast make it a boring image.

Using just ACR6 and CS5, the saturation and contrast can be adjusted.


It doesn’t look too bad, but somehow the image still looks a bit dull. More of an HDR look is needed I think.

So it’s time for Topaz Adjust 4. Now, before getting to Topaz itself, I need to remove the keystoning and crop the image to remove some of the bright section at the very top. It is distracting and adds nothing to the image. I use PTLens for removal of distortions of all kinds, and you can read about that in this separate article.

So once the image has been prepared for color and tone adjustments, it is time to open the topaz adjust filter. It comes up in a fairly large modal dialog, shown here:


There are several panels for you to use during your editing session. Click through to see the larger screen shot (hint: right click, open in new window so you can read while referring to the larger panel in a separate browser window.) Starting top left and proceeding clockwise:

  1. Preview panel. When you float your mouse over any of the default effects in the left hand panel, the preview panel top left shows the effect while the mouse hovers.
  2. Tabs for original image and adjusted image. You can also see the original image by clicking on the main diagram in the middle and holding the left mouse button down.
  3. Top right os the original view of the image.
  4. Top middle has a few useful buttons to change the size of the main image preview in the middle. You can see the original image fit to view. You can see a 1:1 view, which allows you to see all the noise for fine adjustment of sharpening or noise reduction. And you can increase or decrease magnification in small increments. There are also a couple of buttons for undo and redo. Handy stuff.
  5. The right hand panel contains the real meat of the dialog, many sliders that affect everything about the image. These are covered in much more detail in a moment.
  6. A strip of buttons at the bottom provides managing of presets that you or others create, a menu showing tutorial links etc, the cancel and ok button for the whole dialog, and a reset all button to go back to the preset value itself. There is also an “I Feel Lucky!” button to presumably let Topaz pick a preset for you. I never get lucky with that button.
  7. And finally the left hand panel containing the list of presets. Lots of interesting choices based on exposure, detail, color, or many combinations thereof. There are several new ones in Topaz 4 – a couple of new HDR looks (note, Topaz Adjust already had several), a couple of night time looks, and some new sketching looks. Pencil sketches etc. This tool is incredibly versatile.

So on with the work flow.

You first choose your preset. In this case, exposure color stretch looks pretty good.


Then you go over to the right hand panel and start tweaking the sliders. The first bank is the exposure bank.


Adaptive Exposure and Regions work hand in hand here. These are responsible for a lot of the HDR look you can get. Here is the tool tip you get:


You can think of Adaptive exposure as “Shadows and HIghlights” on steroids. Then, you have regions:


Think of this as “radius.” Basically, you get very fine details as you dial it up, and much coarser details as you dial it down. Kind of like sharpening versus local contrast adjustments. The unsharp mask tool can do both, and the radius is what makes the difference. Same thing here. But on steroids again.

Contrast, brightness, highlight and shadow are obvious here. And yes, highlight and shadow are pretty much what you get in photoshop. The Adaptive Exposure is similar conceptually, but adds the HDR twist.

The next panel is the Details panel.


Strength is quite similar to “amount” in most sharpening tools. They call it the “degree of detail enhancement.”

Boost is “the degree of small details enhancement.” This is a convenient slider with a small radius. Between these two, you have a lot of different looks possible. Note, though, that setting boost to zero essentially cripples the Strength slider. There is a definite interaction there.

Threshold is supposed to control the number of elements that are considered as details. And it seems to do that. Setting Threshold to the minimum value cripples the radius slider. Threshold has an effect not unlike radius. The two together offer a incredible amount of control over contrast and detail.


Sharpen removes image blur. This is a pretty standard sort of sharpening tool, but since the rest of the sliders all affect the perception of sharpness in one way or another, you really need to play with them all and watch them react to each other before getting a feel for the effects you like. I doubt that there are many tools that offer the kind of detail enhancement you can get with this one.

The final two panels are Color and Noise.


Adaptive saturation is similar to the other adaptive controls in that the job is to even out the image. This helps give the HDR “look” to an image. Regions is related in that it controls how finely grained the image looks to adaptive algorithm. I.e. how many parts into which the image is divided. Choosing a larger number provides a more even result.

Saturation and saturation boost provide an increase in overall saturation, and an increase in saturation of less saturated areas, respectively. And Hue provides a minor hue correction control. Very much unlike the Hue/Saturation slider in Photoshop, which swings the hue wildly between extremes. This one is very limited, which is also very helpful.

The version I did of this image way back a few years with Topaz Adjust 3 is still one of the best ones I’ve done.


For this article, I ran it again in Topaz Adjust 4 without referring to the above image and I came up with a very similar image. I should have cranked up the regions slide for saturation I think, but otherwise I obviously used mostly the same settings.


A little brighter than the previous one. I think I like that. More golden. And, of course, I handled the other bubble better, preserving the gentleman that is looking of the lady’s shoulder as she shoots the buildings.

As I mentioned, though, there are many looks available with Topaz Adjust 4. Here are three others, all new.

Sketch – Dark Charcoal


Dark – Ghostly


HDR – Sketch



Remember that you can run Topaz Adjust 4 on a separate layer and use all of its powerful tricks to pull out colors or detail or anything else you can think of. Then you can use a mask to paint on only the areas you want to keep … for example, I’ve run Topaz just to pull out feather detail on a bird and left the rest of the image alone. This really emphasizes the details in that one areas. Ditto with moon shots. There is no end of fun with this tool.

A few more examples of pseudo-HDR from my gallery:






In my opinion, It’s a worthy addition to almost anyone’s toolkit. 

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